Alciphron & Siris

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Presentation by the translator of the two recently published books by George Berkeley

George Berkeley (1685-1753) is best known today for his youthful works, especially for the Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and by Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713), than by any of his later writings. These two works concentrate his main arguments on various ontological, epistemological and metaphysical issues that continue to be the object of great philosophical interest. It is in them that his ingenious denial of the existence of “matter” and his consequent defense of idealism, synthesized in the principle esse est percipi - to be is to be perceived – for which he is often remembered.

During George Berkeley's lifetime, however, his first published writings did not arouse the same interest as his last two great works: Alciphron (1732), and Siris (1744). These mature works, more than the earlier ones, would contribute to the fame he enjoyed in his time. Later, however, this interest was supplanted by the greater attention given to the early writings. In recent decades, they have again become the subject of many studies and articles, and also receive new translations.

Although apparently very different from each other, Alciphron e Siris have in common the defense of the Christian religion. This preoccupation, in fact, is a constant feature in other writings by George Berkeley. She is present in Basic it is us Dialogues, whose explicit aim is the refutation of skepticism and atheism, which he saw as a threat to philosophy and religion.

George Berkeley's keen interest in religion also led him to pursue an ecclesiastical career. In 1734 he was appointed Anglican bishop, assuming the diocese of Cloyne in the extreme south of Ireland, which is why when his name is mentioned today he is remembered as an Irish philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne.


The full title of Alciphron (Alciphron: or the meticulous philosopher, in sseven dialogues, containing an apology for the Christian religion, against those who are called free thinkers), follows the spirit of the full titles of the Basic and Three dialogues. He makes clear the apologetic background of the work, which is part of the long tradition of Christian apologetics, expressly directed against “freethinkers”, considered promoters of moral skepticism and enemies of Christianity. The attack was aimed at particular figures of his time, including John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1671rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1713-1676), Anthony Collins (1729-1694), Francis Hutcheson (1746-1670 ) and Bernard Mandeville (1733-XNUMX), and goes back to some essays published anonymously in The Guardian during George Berkeley's London sojourn in 1713, in particular to the essays "Minute Philosophers", and "A Visit to the Pineal Gland" (which is why these essays have been included in this volume.)

Alciphron, The most extensive of Berkeley's works, it was written between the years 1729 and 1731 during his extended stay in Rhode Island, North America, while he awaited a financial subsidy promised by the English Parliament for his plan to found a missionary college in the Bermuda Archipelago. The Bermuda Project, announced in 1724 in a pamphlet entitled "A Proposal for the Better Supplying the Churches in Our Foreign Colonies and for Converting the Wild Americans to Christianity," aimed to introduce the arts and learning to America, about which in 1725 George Berkeley wrote the poem a prophecy, in which he predicted: “towards the west the empire is heading” (Verses about America, 7, p. eleven).

Convinced that Europe was in moral and spiritual decay, and that America offered hope for a new golden age, George Berkeley obtained a promise from the British Parliament to finance his project. In September 1728, after marrying Anne Forster, he traveled to the New World. He landed at Newport, where he acquired a farm on which to base his plan to establish a college in the Bermuda Islands for the children of settlers and Native Americans. However, after spending three years waiting for the promised subsidy, and having already consumed a good sum of his fortune, part of which he had inherited a few years before from Esther Vanhomrigh, the writer “Vanessa”, Jonathan Swift’s correspondent, Berkeley was forced to abandon the plans and return to Britain in 1731.

Some allusions at the beginning of the first dialogue place the work in the context of the failure of the Bermuda Project. Dion, the character who narrates the dialogues, undertakes to inform his friend Theages, who remained in England, in writing about the “undertaking” that took him to that “remote region of the country” and about the “failure” of his project, which entailed “a great waste of time, effort and money” (Alc. 1.1:31). The descriptions found at the opening of the second and fourth dialogues refer to certain scenarios on the island of Rhode Island, close to Newport, where Berkeley was during the composition of the work and where he situates the course of the dialogues between the various characters. O Alciphron it can be considered, therefore, as one of the first philosophical works written in America.

The first edition of Alciphron, in two volumes, was published in London by the publisher Jacob Tonson, and in Dublin by the booksellers G. Risk, G. Ewing, and W. Smith, in February 1732, shortly after Berkeley's return from America in October. from 1731. The first volume included the “Warning”, the “Summary”, and Dialogues 1 to 5; the second volume contained Dialogues 6 and 7, and the republication of Essay for a new theory of vision, first published in 1709. The edition did not state the authorship of the works, but, as Berkeley was already known as the author of the essay on vision, the omission of his name was apparently not intended to make it difficult to identify the authorship of the work. Alciphron.

In the same year, 1732, a second edition was published in London, again in two volumes and with the same distribution of texts, but now with some minor textual changes. In 1752, still in London, the third edition was published, with a final revision, whose most significant modification was the suppression of paragraphs 5 to 7 of the seventh dialogue (inserted in this volume in Appendix). Unlike previous editions, the third came out in a single volume and without the inclusion of the Test on vision. The volume again did not identify the author's name.

Alciphron aroused immediate attention and greater interest than Berkeley's earlier works. Its success can be judged by the successive editions it had and the critical reactions it aroused. (Berman, 1993, p. 2). In addition to the various editions in English, the work received an immediate translation into Dutch (Leyden, 1733) and another into French (La Haye, 1734). In 1753, the same year of Berkeley's death, the first posthumous edition appeared. In 1757, 1767, 1777 new editions were published, which indicates that, throughout that century, the work continued to be relatively popular.

Part of the success of Alciphron perhaps it can be explained by the literary qualities and style of the work, composed in the form of philosophical dialogues, according to the Platonic model. although the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, published in 1713, rival in beauty and philosophical subtlety, and by themselves would already make George Berkeley a master of elegant writing in the form of dialogues, from a literary point of view it can be considered Alciphron, as TE Jessop described it, the best of Berkeley's great works. According to Jessop (editor of the modern edition of the complete works of George Berkeley), as a work of art Alciphron it is a supreme work in the total body of English philosophical literature, and perhaps supreme also in religious apologetic literature. (Luce & Jessop, works, 1950, vol. 3p. two).

The seven dialogues that make up the work, structured in brief chapters, are written as if they were a letter from Dion, the narrator character, who rarely enters into the discussion, addressed to his friend Theages, who is in England.

The first dialogue introduces the protagonists of the dialogues and the sect of freethinkers or nitpicking philosophers. These are represented by Alciphron and his ally Lysicles. Alciphron is characterized as an enlightened and thorough freethinker who argues, in the first dialogue, that religion is just an imposture of priests for political ends. Lysicles is characterized as someone endowed with a “vivid spirit and a general vision of letters”, who became friends with libertines and freethinkers, to the detriment of his health and his fortune. (Alc. 1:32). Euphranor, a farmer who went through the university, and his friend and Christian ally Crito, are the other two protagonists of the dialogues, which, in general, represent the ideas of George Berkeley. They take on freethinkers and argue, in the first dialogue, for the usefulness and necessity of religion for morality.

In the second dialogue, the character Eufranor seeks to weaken the thesis defended by Lysicles – borrowing from the fable of the bees, by Mandeville, whose fifth edition had been published in London in 1728 – that “private vices bring public benefits”. The hypothesis of the utility of vice proposed by Mandeville is attacked by Eufranor and Crito because it would not provide a motivation to act in public benefit, only to seek pleasure and satisfaction of self-interest.

In the third dialogue, the spokesmen for George Berkeley's ideas direct their criticism against the ethical theories of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. They suggest, opposing the thesis of the existence of a “moral sense” that would make us perceive the abstract beauty of virtue and that would serve as a foundation for virtuous human conduct, that the only effective motivations to act are the expectations of rewards or punishments. future. As a result, they advocate the necessity of believing in God's omnipresence and moral government in this life as well as in the life to come.

The fourth dialogue resumes and expands George Berkeley's metaphysical conception developed in essay on vision, according to which Mind is the original principle that directs everything. In it, through the character Eufranor, Berkeley develops a proof of the existence of God based on an analogical argument, by treating the existence of God or an infinite mind in the same way as we treat the existence of a person or a finite mind. Just as we recognize that there are other persons or finite minds independent of ours because they speak to us and communicate with us, we could also recognize the existence of God by his marks, which are intelligible to us, through the visual language of nature through which he would speak to us continually. The theistic interpretation of the universe promoted by the dialogue intends to demonstrate, therefore, that every time we open our eyes we “see”, literally, God.

In the fifth dialogue the discussion advanced by Eufranor turns to theism in its Christian form. While acknowledging the defects of clericalism, the variety of religions, theological conflicts, and other flaws connected with the Christian religion, he goes on to illustrate how Christianity and its institutions are morally excellent and useful; how, more than other forms of faith, it makes people more virtuous and happier, bringing benefits not only to individuals but also to nations.

the sixth dialogue, the longest of all, it moves from the previous theme about the usefulness of the Christian religion to a debate about the divine nature of Christianity. The protagonists of the dialogue discuss the evidence in favor of the truth of Christianity. The Christian religion is presented as the consummate revelation of God to men, which is foreshadowed in its visible marks in nature. The dialogue ends up suggesting that acceptance of divine revelation, like acceptance of natural science, is a matter of faith. In any case, the effects of genuine faith would produce probability and practical certainties which would suffice, against all doubt, as a basis for religion.

In the seventh and final dialogue, the protagonists move from the previous discussion about the moral evidence in favor of Christianity to a discussion about the credibility of the Christian faith. According to free thinkers, as it involves the mysteries of faith, Christianity could not be justified by any evidence, however likely it might be.

The freethinking Alciphron, who leans on science and demands a strict demonstration of the truth of Christianity, thus demands that the use of unintelligible words like "grace" be abandoned. Against this position, Euphranor defends the mysteries of faith by appealing to our use of language. This leads the dialogue into a discussion about the relationship between “faith” and “science” and about the meaning and usefulness of language even when the words do not suggest ideas. Eufranor argues that if religion employs mysterious notions to which no idea corresponds or about which we cannot form an idea – such as “grace”, “trinity”, “incarnation”, “original sin” and “free will” –, science also employs concepts, such as "force", square root of a negative number, and other theoretical terms, which do not suggest ideas.

Given the discussion raised in the last dialogue, Alciphron it thus ends up being a fundamental source of George Berkeley's views on language in general. Opposing the semantic thesis of John Locke (1632-1704) that every meaningful word must stand for an idea, Berkeley can be seen as an advocate of a doctrine of meaning broader than Lockean ideational theory. The meaning of words could not only be linked to ideas that we can conceive differently, but rather to the place they occupy in a system of signs related to practice or experience.

In this respect, some contemporary interpreters see in Berkeley, particularly in the seventh dialogue of the Alciphron, an anticipation of the emotive theory of meaning (Belfrage 1986; Berman, 1993), others an anticipation of the theory of meaning as use, similar to that of the second Wittgenstein. (Flew, 1974). Such an approximation would be justified to the extent that George Berkeley would encourage us to approach language from the perspective of its multiple functions and its connection with human activity. (Roberts, 2017; Pearce, 2022).

As can be seen in a quick survey of contemporary scholarship on the philosophy of George Berkeley, Alciphron has aroused renewed interest among its interpreters. Despite their strong moral and apologetic character, the dialogues pose philosophical questions that go beyond the religious scope. As a classic work of the philosophical tradition that it is, Alciphron it deals with several permanent and living questions, which continue to arouse great interest. Its importance lies both in the advanced views on certain issues and in the exemplary and elegant dialogic way of approaching them.


Siris, the last great philosophical work of George Berkeley, was published in 1744. It was a great success in its time, immediately becoming a true bestseller. During the same year, several consecutive editions were published in Dublin and London. The following year it was read with great interest throughout Europe, receiving partial translations into Dutch, German, and a full translation into French.

The title derives from the Greek word Σεὶρις, diminutive of σεὶρα: small rope or chain. Berkeley uses this term both to refer to the structural literary chain of the work – described by its full title as a “ua chain of reflections and philosophical investigations about the virtues of tar water and various other subjects related to each other and derived from each other” –, as if to designate the very structure of the world, where one could perceive an admirable connection and chaining between all things, which would reveal the living unity of Nature.

One of the central ideas developed in Siris, borrowing from Iamblichus and the Platonists, is that “there is no leap in nature, but a Chain or Scale of beings ascending by moderate and uninterrupted gradations from lower to higher beings, each nature receiving its form and being perfected by participation in a superior” (Siris, § 274).

Siris It is a work of difficult interpretation. Presented with the aim of defending the medicinal virtues of tar water, the book actually deals with diverse subjects, ranging from alchemy to medicine, from physics to metaphysics, from science to theology and Platonic philosophy.

The work presents a chain of reflections that intends to lead the reader from one end of the chain of beings to the other: from the grossest sensible things to the purely spiritual being from which the whole would emanate. “In this chain, each link leads to another. The lowest things are connected with the highest.” (Siris, § 303). Thus, from tar – the basis for the preparation of tar water presented at the beginning of the work as a universal panacea –, Berkeley then moves on to resins; from resins to plant spirit; from the vegetable spirit to the ethereal spirit which would animate all things in the sensible world and constitute a universal principle of life; the ethereal spirit, in turn, directs Berkeley's reflections to finite spirits and, finally, to God himself.

In its final paragraphs, Siris culminates in an openly Platonic metaphysical and speculative reflection on the primordial unity, the τὸ ἕν, or the One being of the Platonists, considered by Plotinus to be prior to the very spirit of God. A view that, according to George Berkeley, not only does not lead to atheism, but is compatible with Christian doctrine and already includes, in the form of the three divine hypostases, an exact idea of ​​the Trinity.

Thus, the initial development of an argument of a medicinal chemical nature, with the aim of defending the therapeutic virtues of tar water (a mixture prepared based on tar resin pine), with paragraphs dedicated to the chemistry of acids and salts, then becomes a treatise on different topics, with reflections on nature, on mechanistic philosophy, on the soul and divinity, aiming to establish the connection between the world and the Holy Trinity.

Although it is not announced as explicitly as in Alciphron or in preceding works, the apologetic intention of Siris then becomes evident. By arguing that nature is the effect of an intelligent cause, Berkeley not only emphasizes the need for a Spirit as the ultimate cause, but also intends to lead the reader's mind, gradually, to the contemplation of God.

Although Siris maintain the foundations of Berkeley's idealism, it is a work that has a style very different from the Basic and Dialogues, being strongly marked by Neoplatonic influences. Despite that, Siris remains an important source for understanding Berkeley's philosophy, since “the book is replete with passages in which the main theses of earlier works are reiterated, often with more elaborate arguments: empiricism in its strict form, the conformation of philosophy natural to this empiricism, the nomological-deductive view of explanation in this domain of knowledge, the critique of Cartesian mechanism, the instrumentalist interpretation of forces, the transfer to metaphysics and theology of the study of the real causes of phenomena, the spiritual character of these causes, etc. .” (Chibeni, 2010, p. 405).

As can be seen, and despite the “scientific” information presented in Siris seem completely outdated, despite their evoked knowledge of chemistry and physics having been mostly supplanted or even considered wrong (Jessop, 1953, p. 7), in the same way as in relation to Alciphron, there are many interesting things in Siris for the student of philosophy in general and for anyone interested in Berkeley's philosophy in particular. And this interest can increase even more when the contemporary reader and interpreter manages to stop “finding Berkeley interesting only insofar as he has something relevant to say about the problems with which we are concerned, and only insofar as he is capable of to solve what we consider significant philosophical problems” (Bradatan, 2022, p. 16).

*Jaimir Conte Professor of Philosophy at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).


George Berkeley. Alciphron or The Thorough Philosopher / Siris. Translation: Jaimir Conte. São Paulo, Unesp, 2022, 582 pages (

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